Two weeks ago, I was introduced to a group of five or so young men from Jalazone who wanted to learn English. All were between the ages of 20 and 30, most were looking for jobs, and none spoke any English beyond “Hello!”, and “How are you!”. So, for two weeks now, I and another intern have been teaching English class for two hours a night. After our classes started, word spread and the class size quickly grew, but now it’s stabled out around 8 or 9, depending on the night. Tonight is the last class of our mini-course, as we’re getting ready to move to another camp, and I’m going to miss this a lot. It’s pretty crazy to see how much everyone’s learned over such a short period, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.
When the guys started out, everyone could read and write English words, but they couldn’t speak much more than greetings.
So, we started out by memorizing basic phrases in English, and then moved on to basic vocabulary words. What words to you teach someone when you’re introducing a new language to them? The easiest words? The most important words? The most common words? I guess it’s not until you start with a blank slate that you realize how many words you need to express yourself. And there are so many types of words to memorize and categorize.
For starters, we tried some nouns that everyone could use:
father, mother, brother, sister (and so on), house, street, car
As for verbs, we picked some easy ones that weren’t too too hard to conjugate:
work, play, study, walk, eat
As we moved on and learned out to make basic sentences, we peppered in a few adjectives (big, tall, short, small, blue, red, yellow, good, bad, fine, tired, hungry, angry) to make things interesting. We even managed to get a few adverbs in there (very, a little bit, quickly, soon) for bonus points. Prepositions weren’t too hard to pick up, and once we explained the articles, the guys were making sentences about their lives, jobs (or lack thereof), families, and homes, all by day two.
In a way, this has been something like a dream assignment for me. I love languages, and I’ve been pretty lucky to have received first class instruction in four languages in the past few years.
The most important for this one is English. Ever since I was a kid, I liked learning about the grammar and structure of the English language, but it wasn’t until now that I’ve finally become grateful for all those years at St. Aloysius Catholic academy that I spent sweating through Sister Susan’s painful grammar drills. (Ok, maybe not quite grateful, but I can see the logic behind the torture.) It makes it a lot easier to explain things in English when you know why they are that way. Should I say “I am living” or “I live”? What is the difference? Why do we put the word “do” into questions? When do we do that? Is that word always in questions? The other intern that I’m working with speaks Arabic fluently, and she’s great at translating my convoluted explanations and making them make sense. I think that the boring grammar stuff is pretty important, even though these guys need quick instruction and just want to be able to speak the language. It’s important because without a base knowledge in grammar, learning a language becomes just blind memorization. These guys have shown that they’re capable of a lot more than that.
Even though I’ve never really taught a class before, doing this feels pretty natural, mostly because I’m just copying the methods I’ve learned from my own language classes in the past. From my seventh grade Latin teacher, I learned the importance of making charts to conjugate verbs. From my ninth grade Spanish teacher, I took the importance of repeating the same vocabulary over and over again in class for memorization. From my tenth grade Spanish teacher, I learned games and drills to make language learning fun. From my sophomore Arabic professor, I learned the importance of balancing speaking, reading, writing, and listening. This last one has perhaps been the most important. In fact, most of the course that I’ve taught has been pretty much a copy of my Arabic course, just inversed. We do a lot of the same drills, homework, and in class exercises. For vocabulary, I’ve even been printing out vocab sheets that our Arabic profs made us that have English and Arabic side by side (thanks profs!). It works out great, especially since the sheets have words I had to learn in order to learn about life in the Middle East. Just as I learned “mosque, minaret, politics, international relations, invasion, refugee, occupation” in Arabic, the guys are looking at my same vocab sheets in reverse, so that they can tell me about their lives in English.
I realize now just how lucky I’ve been to have had teachers who knew what they were doing. They’ve all put a lot more thought into teaching than I have, and they’ve figured out things that worked. I still have a lot to learn about teaching, but I already feel pretty indebted to all the teachers I’ve had who’ve taught me how to teach.
As of our last class, the guys can talk about themselves, their backgrounds, their families, and talk about what they want and need. They can talk about finding a job, they can describe people, and they can have basic friendly conversations. It’s all very rough, and most of the guys are pretty shy so it’s hard to get them to speak a lot in English, but I realize that this all takes time. They can understand a lot more English than they did before, and their writing has improved a lot too. Last night, one of the students typed up his C.V. in English and I helped him edit it. It was the first tangible product of our work and it was pretty encouraging. I wish that I could stay here and do this for a longer period of time.
Oh, I almost forgot the most important thing. Laughter. We spend a lot of time each class laughing. We laugh at my lousy Arabic, my lousy explanations of English (“Every English sentence needs a verb. Except when it has two. Or one and a half!”) the guys’ English (“I have four fathers!”), each other, and mostly, the ridiculousness of the English language. Apparently, if you’re not a native English speaker, the word “water bottle” might be the funniest word on the face of the earth. Say it a few times. It is a pretty silly word.
Water bottle. hmmm…
Also, in other news, we’ve been taking some fun trips on the weekends. Last weekend was Haifa, this time, we’re off to Tel Aviv for a music festival. Stay tuned for pics of beaches and stories of life on the other side.